Formations 11.20.2022: Giving the Sense

Nehemiah 7:73b–8:6, 8-10

When I was a pastor in Indiana, I met a woman who had been traumatized by the Bible—or more accurately, by the way the people in her life had handled the Bible. Her church experience to that point had been all about the rules, the expectations, and the condemnations. There was little to none of the grace, the forgiveness, or the hope.

She had a connection to one of my church members. Through him, she came to be part of our church and met some new Christian friends. Over time, she came to understand that God was not out to get her, and the Bible is not a rulebook. She learned that there is a difference between studying the Bible and meeting the Author.

I sometimes tell people that my job description is to take away people’s Bibles and try to give them a better one. That dear sister in Christ in Indiana was instrumental in helping me put that goal into words.

Today our lesson takes us to the book of Nehemiah. During Nehemiah’s administration as governor of Judah, he held a solemn assembly at which Ezra the priest reads the law in the hearing of all the people. The text gives us an intriguing detail that has long captured my attention. Not only does Ezra read the law, but several Levites are mentioned by name as participating in the event. Ezra apparently read in Hebrew while his Levite assistants “gave the sense” (8:8) in the more familiar Aramaic language.

Just think what might have happened if no one had bothered to translate God’s word into a language that people could understand. I’m pretty sure nothing would have happened—because no one would know how to respond or what they were responding to. But the people do know what they heard, so they respond. They answer “Amen, Amen” with lifted hands (v. 6).

But they also respond with mourning and weeping. What did the people hear that led them to despair? An hours-long reading of the Law would have covered a lot of difficult subject matter. There were commandments the people had not kept. There were warnings they had not heeded and punishments they no doubt feared were about to land on their heads.

And here I think again of my friend in Indiana. Nehemiah and Ezra never intended their public reading of the Law to lead to sorrow. Far from it! They knew that the word of God was meant to give people joy and freedom. There are parts of the Bible that are hard to hear. But thank God, they’re not the whole story and certainly not the most important part.

Therefore, Nehemiah and Ezra tell the people to go home and celebrate with feasting, “for the joy of the LORD is your strength” (v. 10). They took away the Bible that made them fear and gave them a better one that invited them to feast.


• What have you had to unlearn about the Bible and its role in the life of faith?
• Who are the people who “gave the sense” of Scripture so you could understand it better?
• Is it ever appropriate to mourn upon hearing the word of God? Explain.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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